It Is What You Say


There is an old cliché that it’s not what you say, but how you say it. The reality is, it’s both of these things. Tone is important, but it also is the words you choose. When it comes to talking about adoption, we must think more intensely about our language. Words have an impact on people’s lives. As adults connected to adoption, this can be difficult to navigate at best. But for youth, the language we use surrounding adoption packs a powerful punch, one that can sometimes bully kids into feeling insecure or uncertain about their family and themselves.

There are countless examples of inappropriate adoption talk all around us. Last summer, a reporter tweeted a statement about US Olympian Simone Biles’ family, which had the effect of diminishing the authenticity of her family relationships. More recently, a series of tweets meant to poke fun at the president’s family offered that, “we are a couple of hours from a Trump tweet that says Don Jr. is adopted”; following this statement an individual tweeted back, “He’s too good looking to be adopted”. Movies and television programming often depict adoption in ways that are at best inaccurate, and at worst belittle the powerful yet complicated connections that make up the adoption experience.

As far as we think we have come, adoption as the punch line to a thoughtless joke still appears to be a thing.

Animal rescues, roads, trees and parks all ask us to ‘adopt them’; cards are designed offering congratulations when people adopt pets. We love pets and think parks are important, but new language needs to be developed when we support these matters. The adoption of a child is a serious matter and adoption should be a word used specifically for this profound event. Our furry friends add a lot to our lives. However, when we connect this to the adoption experience, we wind up with problems like ‘rehoming children’, a term used to describe unregulated child custody transfers and one that also describes owners of pets who return them to shelters when they can’t or don’t wish to care for them.

There’s a big different between ‘returning’ a pet to a shelter and undoing an adoption outside legal channels, which is what unregulated child custody transfers are all about. These transfers leave children vulnerable to abuse and neglect, unsafe, and, they devalue the very essence of what an adoption should be meant to convey – an unconditionally loving, safe, and permanent family.

The laws and policies of our country set a tone here as well, and add to the problems surrounding language and adoption. Adopted people are subjected to living with amended birth certificates, which list their adoptive parents as birth parents, a concept termed by some as a ‘legal fiction’. This legal fiction lives in perpetuity in most states because even as adults, the majority of adopted people are denied unconditional access to their true vital record.

People who were adopted internationally before a certain time-frame are subjected to the possibility of deportation if their parents did not take the appropriate steps to gain citizenship for them once their adoptions were finalized. The ‘forever family’ promised to these individuals was less a promise and more an idea based on adults doing the ‘right’ thing by them when they were kids. Some did, some didn’t. And the consequences have been devastating.

It’s hard to come up with the right language to describe the complexities of the adoption experience when the laws that guide the very practice of adoption are at times vague, discriminatory, and espouse ideals in principle rather than in action.

As adults, we are left with a lot of mixed messages, and so it’s no surprise that the most charged conversations about the ‘right’ language to use occur within our very own community. In our efforts to educate the public about the need for appropriate adoption talk, we frequently are at odds with each other surrounding how to communicate about this intricate experience.

We don’t have the answer to this complexity, probably because there is no one right answer. The notion of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ adoption language is not the solution here. That is an overly simplistic way of considering this issue and often lends itself to creating further dichotomies that don’t serve the unity we desperately need in our community. What is first important is to think about how we are discussing adoption. Conversations must always be rooted in truth and humanity as an essential starting place to healthy adoption talk.

A lot of the language that is particularly offensive in adoption shares something in common-it’s dehumanizing. When adoption is made to be the punch line of a joke, click bait, or a parody, it dehumanizes the experience. When we think children can be routed to new homes, like a pet to a shelter, it dehumanizes them. When we discount the critical importance of an original birth certificate, we are saying that adopted people are not born first, but rather their life begins after the profound event that connects all of us as human beings. When we diminish the roles of the different parents and relatives in the extended family of adoption we leave people feeling insignificant and ‘less than’.

We know this is a complicated area and it can be hard to make sure we’re talking in a way that accounts for the numerous different experiences in adoption. We know that there are so many times when we talk about adoption that the words can hurt. Whether you’re a young child or an older adult, words that devalue us and our families hurt. It’s important that we continue to have this discussion, learn from each other, and always strive to make sure that the humanity of this experience is at the center of our conversation.

To do this, it is essential that, as adults, we don’t think about what serves our interests, but rather what is in the best interest of the children. It is our responsibility to ensure that children, no matter their family structure, can feel secure about their family experience and that they are welcome to express their questions and the many different feelings they may have about adoption and what this means for them. We must always remember that children do not participate in decision making surrounding adoption. As adults, we must then prioritize their interests over our competing needs. Acting in the best interest of children means we make sure that our words about family leave them with a strong sense of themselves, the many people who make up their extended family of adoption, and their place in this world.